Recruiting and Admitting
First-Generation Students

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education review of federal data found that less than 15 percent of undergraduates at the 50 colleges and universities -- both public and private -- with the largest endowments received Pell Grants in 2008-09; the findings gathered considerable attention in the media because of the conclusion that America's most selective schools are finding only slow improvement in bringing in more lower-income students.

It's important to note, though, that many four-year institutions of varying size and selectivity struggle with how to effectively recruit and retain lower-income and first-generation students. In an interview with Academic Impressions this week, Mary Ontiveros, Colorado State University's vice president for diversity, suggested four key steps to boosting the enrollment of lower-income, first-generation students in ways that not only admit them to your institution but also help set them up for success after they arrive:

  • Educate your staff about the challenges first-gen students face
  • Form a first-gen faculty outreach group
  • Engage in proactive outreach to local high schools
  • Provide resources for parents of first-generation students

Educate Your Staff about Challenges First-Gen Students Face

"Too many institutions don't recognize the extent to which first-gen students are really at a disadvantage. We've completed research at Colorado State finding that if all else is equal, first-gen status can contribute significantly to a student's risk of being unsuccessful. This is because higher education is a foreign environment; first-gen students may not understand the processes or the culture."
Mary Ontiveros, Colorado State U

It will be critical to educate your staff and key administrators on campus (for example, the provost and the retention committee or student success task force) about the obstacles first-gen students may face due simply to lack of information. Lacking (to varying degrees) a family history of higher education, first-generation role models, and readily available mentors, they may be unfamiliar with application and financial aid processes, or with common deadlines and academic procedures. Some students may be reluctant to apply without having the funding in hand to pay for their education; they may not know that their financial aid will not be assessed or offered until they're admitted.

Even documents that the institution may take for granted may prove oblique to applicants who don't have someone to ask questions of.


Ontiveros cites the case of a first-generation student from a rural environment who did not realize (because it was nowhere explicitly defined) that 16 credit hours equaled 16 classroom hours a week; the student assumed that it meant 16 classroom hours per day. The applicant sat with his father at the dining room table, commiserating and problem-solving, until at last the student's father said, "Son, you've baled hay for 16 hours a day, you can take classes for 16 hours a day."

Ontiveros asks, "How many other students in that situation, with a similar lack of knowledge and resources, would simply have chosen not to apply?"

"It's not enough for your marketing, admissions, and student services professionals to know a checklist of common challenges," Ontiveros cautions. "They need to understand the challenges in a deeper, very real sense, if they are to provide the information and the support students will need."

How do you achieve that understanding, and then use it to inform effective outreach? Ontiveros recommends leveraging resources you already have -- namely, your faculty and staff who were first-generation students themselves.

Form a First-Gen Faculty Outreach Group

Colorado State University addressed the challenge by forming a faculty outreach group. The institution's president sent out a message requesting willing faculty members to self-identify themselves as having been first-generation students and then volunteer for a group that would aid the institution in enrolling and supporting first-gen students. "We wanted our first-gen students to have role models," Ontiveros notes, "and we wanted to identify in-house experts on these issues who could help educate key administrators."

Here are recommendations drawn from the success of CSU's effort:

  • Give a range of options for faculty to contribute, such as lunch gatherings to review enrollment/retention data and problem-solve or hosting lunches for new students
  • Build marketing and recruiting messages around your faculty group (one of CSU's early objectives for their outreach group was to deliver a radio spot, highlighting the faculty mentors available to first-generation students: "My name is X, I teach biology at CSU, and I was a first-generation student")
  • Recognize faculty for their contribution

Proactive Outreach to High Schools

With a pool of faculty and staff who understand the challenges of first-generation students, Ontiveros recommends engaging in proactive outreach -- forge alliances with area schools, connect your faculty with high-school teachers, hold workshops, have faculty visit a first-generation student club or association at a local school (if there is one), and find as many opportunities as you can to:

  • Set expectations around financial aid, the application process, and the college experience
  • Help students overcome obstacles that stem from simple lack of knowledge about college
  • Relay the message that students can ask your college's representatives anything, without embarrassment

For an article listing practical steps for effective outreach to area schools, read this Higher Ed Impact article from October 2010.


An additional resource your college can offer to first-generation applicants are brief, online video tutorials that cover FAQs or essential steps in applying to your institution or completing the FAFSA.

To learn more about producing cost-effective online video, and to see examples, read this Higher Ed Impact article from February 2010.

Provide Resources for Parents

Finally, Ontiveros stresses the importance of recognizing that parents of first-generation students find themselves in a difficult position. Many of them are likely to want to help their student and contribute to their college experience, but having never lived through the college experience themselves, the advice and information they can provide is limited. Also, they are likely to have concerns and pressing questions of their own. "It's a new experience for them, too," Ontiveros notes. She recommends:

  • Offer a parent orientation and online resources geared specifically toward parents of first-generation students to offer answers to FAQs about financial aid, admission, campus safety, and college life
  • If your institution has partnered with local high schools, hold a day on campus when parents of high school students can visit your college and meet with administrators and faculty

Front-loading this type of support early not only can help increase application and yield rates from lower-income, first-generation students, but can also equip them with the information and resources needed to get a successful start once they arrive on campus.